Behind the Headlines: Writing Enables Child Survivors to Confront Tragic Experiences
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Behind the Headlines: Writing Enables Child Survivors to Confront Tragic Experiences

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Chana Cohen Aronoff was 3 years old when, during the darkest days of the Holocaust, her parents entrusted her to the care of a Christian family.

Fifty-two years after the end of World War II, Aronoff is still trying to come to terms with her experiences as a child Holocaust survivor.

Seated in the offices of Amcha, the Israeli organization for psychological and social assistance to Holocaust survivors, Aronoff, now 57, explains how she is starting to explore the raw, unhealed parts of her childhood.

“I was in hiding from age 3 to 6, and during that time I lived with four different families,” explains Aronoff, who moved to Israel decades ago.

“I stayed with the last family for two-and-a half years, and when my parents returned, I didn’t want to go with them.”

Shaking her head at the recollection, she says, “In order to protect myself, to reassure myself that I wouldn’t have to leave this safe, good family, I imagined that my parents had eaten poisoned strawberries and died.

“When they returned after the war, I screamed and screamed. I didn’t want to leave the family I had come to think of as mine.”

It was not until she enrolled in an Amcha diary-writing workshop for child survivors last year that Aronoff began to examine her past.

“Writing about my experiences in a supportive setting allowed me to think about how traumatic my childhood really was. I was filled with guilt and insecurity. For most of my life, people, including adult survivors, didn’t recognize the emotional toll the Holocaust took on children in hiding.”

This year, as Israel’s Holocaust institutions focus on child victims of the Holocaust, child survivors have begun to share their experiences with a country that is finally willing — or perhaps finally able — to listen.

“It is unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that it has taken almost 50 years for Israelis to recognize child survivors as a distinct group with distinct problems,” says Johanna Gottesfeld, an Amcha psychotherapist who says that during the first decades of statehood, Israeli society encouraged survivors to bury their past, not confront it.

Child survivors must contend with a host of emotional issues, says Gottesfeld.

“Many were torn from their parents and suffer from separation anxiety and feelings of abandonment to this day,” she says. “Sometimes their parents never returned. In other cases, the parents who returned were emotionally damaged. We see these fears being transmitted to the second generation,” the children of survivors.

Elana Brukker, a 59-year-old child survivor from Holland, believes that if there is one trait shared by child survivors, “it is the feeling that we must be good and strong. As a child who was hidden with 12 different families, I knew instinctively that I had to be a good, brave little girl.”

Brukker, recalls that “the first time I went to a survivors’ meeting, I didn’t open my mouth, but I could relate to what the others were saying. There was this box of tissues in the middle of the room, and everyone used it.

“One day I just opened up and cried. Oh how I cried. It felt so good to open up, but even now, I’m afraid to reveal too much for fear of breaking down.”

The fear of breaking down emotionally, of getting too close to the pain, is especially acute around Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was marked in Israel on Monday, says Gottesfeld.

“This day brings back a lot of memories, and survivors are afraid of being flooded. The commemoration is important, but it also brings back the past, which is invariably very painful.”

Regardless of whether they were youngsters or adults during the Holocaust, Gottesfeld stresses that the aging process intensifies the memories.

“Many survivors channeled everything into their work as a way to escape the past, and when they retire, the memories flood back. They also tend to have small families, and many are totally alone.”

Given the growing emotional and physical needs of the aging survivor population, the Israeli government’s recent decision to stop funding Amcha and at least one other survivors’ organization has whipped up a great deal of controversy at a time when the government is pursuing stolen Jewish assets in Switzerland and elsewhere.

Founded in 1987, Amcha began to receive funding from the Health Ministry in 1992. In 1995, government funding accounted for 12 percent of the group’s budget. It dropped to 7 percent in 1996, and this year the subsidy of about $180,000 was eliminated.

While a Health Ministry statement defended the decision on financial grounds, and noted that numerous ministry funded organizations had suffered the same fate, Amcha’s executive director, John Lemberger, termed the cuts “reprehensible.”

“If anything, the government should be contributing 25 percent of our budget” because it has received billions in Holocaust reparations, says Lemberger. “It is inconceivable that Israel would turn its back on Holocaust survivors.”

Lemberger says that Amcha has not cut services to survivors and the second generation because the group receives a steady stream of contributions, including a recent grant from the Swiss government.

Although Holocaust experts concur that services to survivors must continue, some question whether the government’s responsibility extends to children of survivors.

“We have an obligation to support survivors, and the government must find the means to do it, but there is a question in Israel as to who should pay for assistance to the second generation,” says Avner Shalev, chairman of the directorate at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial.

“These people were born in Israel and are part of Israeli society.”

Lemberger, whose group spends approximately half of its resources on second- generation programs, counters that “we work on a sliding scale. Survivors who can pay do pay, and the second generation pay at a higher rate than survivors.”

For Chana Aronoff, a cut in services would be regrettable.

“My writing, which started at Amcha, has helped me and my entire family to heal,” she says.

Thanks to the diary workshop, she says, “I’ve begun to show my writing to my parents to read. It’s opened up a lot of discussion.”

As for the Christian family that gave her a home more than 50 years ago, Aronoff says they still keep in touch.

“Every few weeks I send what I’ve written to my stepsister,” the daughter of the family that “adopted” her, “and she writes things from her perspective. After so many years of secrets, it feels good to have some perspective.”

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